Listening Booth: Fleet Foxes, “Sun Giant EP”

Written by Listening Booth, Music

Having moved away from Seattle to the cement pastures of New York City, I feel woefully out of touch with the consistently good music scene of my hometown. To make up for this, I somewhat frequently badger my friends into telling me about the good Seattle bands. My friends told me — months and months and months ago — about Fleet Foxes, but like the busy, crazy-brained New Yorker that I am, I didn’t remember this recommendation until recently (and not, surprisingly, because of all the press they’ve received lately). While it is, indeed, a disproportionate amount of text to cover the five songs that have been officially released as part of the Sun Giant EP (the album has been leaked for ages, possibly well before they knew they would land on the roster of Seattle champs Sub Pop), the truth is that this is a legitimately interesting band, and one that’s far less gimmicky than most of the bands that have received hype this year (Vampire Weekend, Man Man), which should give them, with any luck, a better chance at not seeing too much backlash, though the Rolling Stone website recently snubbed them (but let’s face it, Rolling Stone hasn’t exactly been known for being on any sort of pulse for quite some time — note that they can’t even be firm in labeling the band as “hype,” they have to preface it with “for now”).

The real story with Fleet Foxes are the harmonies. Without them, it would be easy to set them aside as just another pleasant indie pop band that’s not particularly remarkable, but not necessarily bad, either. There have been dozens upon dozens of these, and there will be dozens and dozens more. The harmonies are what set Fleet Foxes apart. They’re the reason why you can put “Fleet Foxes” and “Crosby Stills Nash & Young” into Google and get so many results you’ll be tempted to check for plagiarism.

In some regards, the CSNY comparison makes sense — ethereal folk rock that screams spring with shimmering guitar parts that rain down like April showers put together with harmonies so beautiful that you could hear them on their own and be completely satisfied. But CSNY rip-offs Fleet Foxes are not. They’ve got a tinge of that other-continent inspired aesthetic that’s going around indie rock these days, and they’ve also got the benefit of well, youth. Robin Pecknold, the primary songwriter, is 21. Remember what being 21 felt like? That’s in here, too.

Despite the sound-drenched aesthetic that fills the heart of the album, there’s also a sense that less is more. The title track is just a chorus of echoing voices for the first half, then shifts into humming over gentle mandolin picking. The mandolin use is a great example of the charm of Fleet Foxes — more on that later. When broken down, “Drops in the River” is also surprisingly simple, though this is masked by its tone variety. Using what sounds like someone not so artfully dragging a bow across an electric guitar, they take one of the weirdest, most awkward sounds in recent memory (almost like someone stepping on the trunk of an elephant) and make it part of something beautiful.

Fleet Foxes, “Drops in the River” (download)

If there’s one song that justifies the attention the band is receiving — even though the whole EP is grand — it’s “Mykonos,” which, I almost hate to say it, is perfect. I know, I know, I’ve just contributed to the hyperbole of hype building… bad blogger, bad! But it’s true, and to deny such in the face of looking cool, or ahead of the backlash curb would be sinful. It’s the chanting, the aggressive acoustic guitar, the brief switch to a’capella half-way through, the manner of the rhymes in the chorus, the way the tones match so perfectly, like in a seasoned poem: “and you will go to Mykonos / with a vision of a gentle coast / and a sun to maybe dissipate / shadows of the mess you made.”

Go ahead, hate the hype. It’s the unfortunate knee-jerk reaction to young bands getting good press (and what an incredibly sad thing that is). The band hates it, too. Pecknold recently apologized for all of the press on the band’s MySpace blog (my apologizes to Pecknold for, uh, making things worse?). But don’t hate the music — it’s something of an innocent bystander in all of this racket.